By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In its first season under a new coaching staff led by Bronco Mendenhall, the University of Virginia football team closed with a humbling defeat against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg last November.
Year 2 brought another loss to the Hokies, again in the regular-season finale. But this year the Cavaliers, who finished 2-10 in 2016, have another game to play. They’re headed to a bowl for the first time since 2011.
“We’ve got one last ride together,” senior safety Quin Blanding said.
The Wahoos (6-6, 3-5) hoped to head into the postseason on high note. But No. 24 Virginia Tech’s defense dominated Friday night, and UVA lost 10-0 at Scott Stadium.
At Lane Stadium last year, the Hokies won 52-10. The gap between the state’s ACC programs “has closed,” Mendenhall said late Friday night, “and that’s obvious, I think, to anyone. But not enough to where we won the game.”
Coming off a game in which they scored 28 points and totaled 439 yards in a road loss to the then-No. 2 Miami Hurricanes, the Cavaliers finished with a season-low 191 yards against the Hokies (9-3, 5-3). Only five of those yards came on the ground. Not since their 2011 loss to Virginia Tech had the `Hoos been shut out in a game.
Those offensive woes, more than anything else, were why UVA’s losing streak in this series is now 14 games. The Hokies took possession of the Commonwealth Cup on Nov. 27, 2004, and have yet to relinquish it.
The Cavaliers are on the rise under Mendenhall, and their fans allowed themselves to dream that this might be the year the losing streak against Virginia Tech ended.
“I thought it was the year, too,” fifth-year senior Kurt Benkert said. “But we didn’t come out [strong] on offense, and I didn’t do a good-enough job to put us in position to win this game. The defense held them to 10 points. There’s just no way that we should’ve had zero points on the scoreboard. We just missed opportunities and didn’t capitalize.”
Against Miami, Benkert completed 28 of 37 passes for 384 yards and four touchdowns, with one interception. Against the Hokies, Benkert faced constant pressure and finished 17-of-34 passing for 186 yards. He was sacked four times.
The Hokies’ front seven “obviously was very dominant,” Benkert said. “They were able to get pressure with four or five guys. And their DBs were bigger guys, so we weren’t able to just really run by them without them being physical, which has been kind of a staple to our offense.”
This was the not the first time, of course, that a Tech defense overseen by Bud Foster, one of the college game’s top coordinators, has stymied the `Hoos.
Since their 35-21 win at Scott Stadium in 2003, the Cavaliers have not scored more than 21 points in a game against the Hokies. Only three times during their long losing streak have the `Hoos scored as many as 20 points.
On Friday night, Virginia’s offense didn’t cross midfield for the first time until late in the second quarter.
“Their defense played exceptionally well and had us behind the chains the majority of the day, which made it difficult to convert on third down,” Mendenhall said. “Every opportunity that you have a chance in a game like this, you have to capitalize … Ultimately, three to five plays make up most games, and that was no different today.”
A stout defensive effort by the Cavaliers wasn’t enough to offset the offense’s lack of productivity. All-America linebacker Micah Kiser (19) and Blanding (17) each posted a career high in tackles. Sophomore linebacker Jordan Mack contributed 10 stops against the Hokies, who came into the game ranked fifth among ACC teams in scoring offense (30.5 points per game).
“Quin and Micah led the preparation all week,” said Mendenhall, also Virginia’s defensive coordinator. “The game mattered to them, our performance matters to them, our program matters to them, and they led by example.”
Kiser said: “You want to win, of course, but I’m really proud of the defense … We played our hearts out.”
Each team turned the ball over once Friday. UVA cornerback Juan Thornhill intercepted a pass by Tech quarterback Josh Jackson late in the first half, and Tech defensive end Houshun Gaines recovered a fumble by UVA running back Chris Sharp early in the third quarter.
The Hokies capitalized on the Cavaliers’ mistake, needing only four plays to cover 40 yards, the final 8 coming on a touchdown pass from Jackson to tight end Chris Cunningham.
Virginia was not so opportunistic. After Thornhill’s pick gave the Cavaliers possession at their 41-yard line, they drove to the Hokies’ 33. On second down, Benkert passed to senior wide receiver Andre Levrone, who was open inside the 10-yard line. But the ball glanced off Levrone outstretched hands and fell to the ground for an incompletion.
Two plays later, true freshman A.J. Mejia missed a 41-yard field-goal attempt that would have made it 3-3.
In the fourth quarter, UVA fans came alive after a spectacular over-the-head reception by Levrone gained 51 yards to the Tech 40. But three plays later, what was initially ruled a 16-completion from Benkert to Dowling was overturned after a video review, and the drive soon imploded. Dowling was called for a personal foul, and the Cavaliers ended up punting.
The officials’ decision “took wind out of [UVA’s] sails, but as a program you’ve got to overcome those, and we still had another down,” Mendenhall said. “If nothing else, we have to get a field goal there.”
The Cavaliers’ frustration continued to mount, and late in the game senior defensive end Andrew Brown was ejected for taking a swing at a Hokie and then pushing an official.
“You gotta be more mature than that,” Kiser said. “You gotta know it’s a big game and every yard matters, and you can’t have selfish plays like that.”
Asked about Dowling’s and Brown’s fourth-quarter outbursts, Mendenhall said, “It’s not what I want our program to represent. I don’t believe in it and I don’t tolerate it, and there will be, obviously, accountability for it. All it does is hurt the team.
“And so my job is to continue to elevate the threshold of our program to where that kind of behavior is gone and all we see is tough, physical play within the whistles, and that’s all we see. Any of the other stuff that happens and any of the residue that’s left over from before, my job is to flush it all out. There’s still some that showed up today.”
WHAT’S NEXT? The `Hoos will learn next Sunday (Dec. 3) to which bowl they’ll be invited. The Cavaliers haven’t played in the postseason since Dec. 31, 2011, when they lost 43-24 to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta.
“I’m grateful these players worked hard enough to help us get back to that, and it will accelerate our program, which we need and which we want,” Mendenhall said.
“We lost the game today. There’s still progress being made. I’m not going to focus only on the loss, because we did some things today that I really liked in a pretty tough setting against a good team.”
Virginia, which dropped its final seven games in 2016, became bowl-eligible this season with a Nov. 4 win over Georgia Tech at Scott Stadium.
“It’s not the same program it was a year ago,” Mendenhall said. “The results certainly show, and I think it’s just the beginning.”
SENIOR NIGHT: Before the game, UVA recognized its 24 fourth- and fifth-year players, a group that includes such standouts as Kiser, Blanding, Benkert, and Levrone. Some of the players who took part in the ceremony have eligibility remaining and will return in 2018.
DISTINGUISHED ALUMNI: Before the start of the second quarter, former UVA baseball standouts Derek Fisher and Chris Taylor were recognized at Scott Stadium, to warm applause from the crowd.
Fisher, who plays for the Houston Astros, and Taylor, a Los Angeles Dodger, met in the World Series this fall.
TAKE A BOW: Craig Littlepage, who’s retiring as UVA’s athletics director next month, was recognized on the field Friday night during the first TV timeout.
A video that commemorated his 16-year tenure as AD was show, and UVA president Teresa Sullivan presented a framed photo to Littlepage, who was accompanied by his wife, Margaret.
GAME BALLS: On a frustrating night for the home team, several Cavaliers stood out. They included:
* Benkert, who now has 3,062 passing yards, a single-season record at UVA. He’s the first quarterback in program history to pass for 3,000 yards in a season.
* Kiser, whose 19 tackles give him 400 for his career. That ranks fifth all-time at UVA.
“I just hope everybody knows I gave my all these last few years for this program,” Kiser said. “Played as hard as I could, tried to lead the guys as best as I can and make this program the best that I could.”
* Blanding, who increased his career total to 479 tackles. That’s the most ever by a defensive back in the ACC.
“I think it finally hit me that I’m finally leaving this place,” Blanding said. “All I can say is, this is why I came back. It’s been an honor. It’s been a blessing to be here to play with these guys.”
* Thornhill, a junior who has four interceptions this season and seven for his UVA career.
THEY SAID IT: On the UVA side, available for postgame interviews were Mendenhall, offensive coordinator Robert Anae and several players. Among their comments:
* Mendenhall: “I love my team. I love my coaches. We’re making steady and consistent progress. We have significant work to do, and I’m really relishing the chance to be with my team more now all the way up to the bowl game to develop and develop and develop and develop and develop. This is not a time off. They’re going to be tired, and they need to be. We have a chance to develop young players, rest some older ones, recruit like crazy, all at the same time, and we get a chance to play one more game. And I would love a chance to have these guys win and be successful one more time.”
* Mack on the Cavaliers’ effort Friday night after being humbled by the Hokies last year: “I just think the mentality has changed a lot in the program. It signifies what culture we have. We are not going to go down easily. We are going to continue to fight no matter who we’re are playing or what situation we are in.”
* Levrone: “We came up short today, but I think that this team can go the distance eventually and it is going to be a lot faster than people think.”
* More Levrone, on having another game to play this season: “You want to go out with a bang. You never want to leave the court without making a shot. I feel like we’re blessed to have another opportunity. I’m thankful. This is my fifth year, and I finally made to a bowl game.
“That streak [against the Hokies] will end one day, but right now we’re focused on that next opponent, and I’m very excited for the time that we’ll have to prepare again and the time that I’ll still have with my teammates and another time to get out there and put a win in the column for the Virginia Cavaliers.”
* Kiser on his final two games against Virginia Tech: “Last year was miserable. I told the guys [Friday night], `The feeling I have right now, it’s not good, but it is way better than last year.’ We fought. We were competitive. They made more competitive plays than us. Their defense outplayed us. And that’s it.”
* More Kiser: “The future’s bright. I hope the fans saw the progress that we made this year and really get behind these guys next year, because we need every bit of support we can get.”